Holding a small, neon green glow stick in her mouth, Lalena “Lannie” Lamson gave her best toothy grin and posed for the camera. The mom from Titusville, N.J., then uploaded this photo to Facebook in November 2012 to announce to friends and family that the breast cancer had returned, and she would start radiation the next month.
Making light of a seemingly grave situation was Lamson’s way of putting on a brave face, literally. Given her military background and career in law enforcement, she was well trained to handle difficult scenarios. It helped that the initial diagnosis hadn’t come as a shock. Twenty years earlier, she had watched her single mother battle and beat stage 4 breast cancer, so she always had an ominous feeling the disease would find her, too (despite not being a carrier of the BRCA gene). When her annual mammogram led to the discovery of stage 0 breast cancer at age 37 in June 2012, Lamson instantly asked for a double mastectomy to eliminate the noninvasive, abnormal cells lining her milk ducts. Discussing her quick decision over Sonic burgers with her husband, Nicholas, later that day, she confirmed this was the best solution, albeit a sad one.
“When I was younger, I had wanted my breasts for so long. I used to fake them with padding. As an adult, they fed my children,” says Lamson, who spent the summer celebrating her “girls” before surgery at Capital Health Center for Comprehensive Breast Care in Hopewell Township, N.J., in September 2012. Parting ways would be tough, but nothing compared to dealing with cancer. “It was so hard watching my mother wither away to nothing for 3 years of her life,” she says. “It took such a toll on this woman who I looked up to. I didn’t want that.”
Two months after the surgery, Lamson prepared to receive her breast implants when doctors found evidence that the cancer had returned and was invasive ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). While the news was devastating to Lamson, she was shocked that people were somewhat cavalier about it. “I never wanted to be the victim, but I wanted people to take my expiration date seriously. I knew I was going to be fine, which is why I could joke about it,” she says, explaining her humorous Facebook photo with the glow stick. Sensing her frustrations bubbling over, she knew she needed an outlet and remembered that drawing had been her salvation during some of the darker spots during a tumultuous childhood. She wasn’t a trained artist, but during her U.S. Coast Guard days years earlier, shipmates confirmed her talent when they asked her to design their tattoos. So she picked up a pencil and paper again during her cancer treatment to express her most vulnerable feelings.
When her 5-week radiation treatment kicked off right after Christmas in 2012, she took a hiatus from her 11-hour workday as a patrol officer and crime scene investigator for the Ewing Township Police Department, where her husband also works as a patrol and K-9 officer. This mother of three (Rhiannon, now 12, Paige, 11, and Nicholas Lewis-Joseph, 4) suddenly had something she hadn’t had in a while: time to herself. After her Monday to Friday doctor’s appointments, she’d sneak off to her little studio in the basement, next to her husband’s man cave, put on her headphones, and immerse herself in her artwork.
Support in Unlikely Places
While drawing helped her cope about 12 to 15 hours a week, so did a private support group on Facebook for breast cancer patients and survivors. That’s where Lamson met a sweet and caring 60-something woman named Kathleen. “She would always ask me how I was doing and told me how cancer had come back after her double mastectomy, too. When I was finally on the road to recovery, I found out that Kathleen’s cancer had spread to her liver and she was given only a few years to live. I had stage 0, she was dying, and here she was comforting me. She inspired me completely,” says Lamson. For the next 6 months, Lamson worked on what she dubbed the “Kathleen Series,” consisting of five surrealist portraits of women with flowers and birds.
By the spring of 2013, Lamson’s artwork began getting noticed. Her illustrations appeared in online publications eFiction and SteamPunk Magazine. She had art showings at Gold Light Studio and 43 Canal Studio in New Hope, Pa. Her work earned a spot in the 2014 Naked in New Hope show, and she signed on Outsider Art dealer George Viener to represent her new business Lalena Lamson Fine Art (lalenalamson.com).
By October, the Kathleen Series was on sale at the Flutter Boutique in Pennington for breast cancer month, with proceeds going to medical research. Flutter Boutique’s owner Linda Martin had also asked Lamson to be the spokesmodel for “Hope is in the Bag,” a monthlong campaign to help support the Capital Health Oncology Department Wig Fund and raise awareness about the importance of early detection.
“When Linda asked me to be the face of this campaign, I couldn’t stop crying. Breast cancer doesn’t just affect your chest. Radiation had knocked down the whole left side of my teeth. I was in the middle of getting dental implants, so I didn’t feel that pretty. If I smiled really wide, I kind of resembled a camel with front teeth and nothing in the back,” she says. “Linda put together this amazing photo shoot, and I had never felt more beautiful. I had weird breasts, missing teeth, chronic migraines, but I was so happy. I’m so grateful that Linda could see beauty in me.”
Now, at 40, and a year into her remission, Lamson continues to draw every chance she gets, which isn’t as often as she’d like, since she recently added the title of arson
investigator to her repertoire. Still she has managed to knock out another five-portrait series titled “Nikki,” which features women with plants.
“Nikki was another woman I met in the Facebook community who suffered from depression. After she beat cancer, she felt so lost while everyone around her was rejoicing. She would say what everyone else was thinking, like ‘Now what? How do I know it won’t come back?’
I totally understood that fear and frustration,” Lamson says. “That’s what really powered me to go into art, so that I couldn’t be accused of wallowing. I was lost, too, but when it came to art, I knew where I was going.”